The past twelve months have been rather quiet for me on the writing front as I’ve been focusing my energies on completing my next collection (which should be published next autumn). But a fellow can’t write all the time (even should he want to) so I’ve been filling the rest of my moments with catching up on some reading. This year, at least, I was able to read more books than I bought, which means I’m slowing whittling away the dreaded “to be read” pile that every reader has towering in some room of her or his house or apartment.
This year, I had two goals: the first was to alternate, as much as possible, between collections of stories and novels; the second was to ensure at least half the books I read were written by women. Though I can’t say I achieved perfect success with either of these goals, I feel comfortable in noting that I came very close in both instances.
By dipping into contemporary and past work, I was able to visit a lot of writers I haven’t spent enough time with before, and some I hope to spend more time with in the future. Some of the standouts for me this year included the weird science of William Sloane’s THE EDGE OF RUNNING WATER; the unnerringly fantastical of Kij Johnson’s AT THE MOUTH OF THE RIVER OF BEES; the nested novella that comprises the heart of John Langan’s THE FISHERMAN; the eastern vibe of Marc Joan’s THE SPECKLED GOD; the always affecting Steven Millhauser’s VOICES IN THE NIGHT; Peter Straub’s A DARK MATTER, the codex for his current work; the stunningly written RUNAWAY by Alice Munro; the bizarre UBO by Steve Rasnic Tem; Helen Marshall’s award-winning GIFTS FOR THE ONE WHO COMES AFTER; the genre-sparking tale of Thomas Tryon’s THE OTHER; Nadia Bulkin’s fantastic SHE SAID DESTROY; Kelly Link’s inspiring GET IN TROUBLE; Kristi DeMeester’s horrific debut, BENEATH; another fascinating look into the world of the Ladykiller with Peter Straub’s THE PROCESS (IS A PROCESS ALL ITS OWN); Alex Smith’s aggressive HIVE; the brilliant Margaret Atwood’s brilliant THE HANDMAID’S TALE; Gemma Files’s intensely personal EXPERIMENTAL FILM; the disorientingly brilliant A COLLAPSE OF HORSES by Brian Evenson; Dale Bailey’s exploration of people and apocolypses in THE END OF THE END OF EVERYTHING; Carmilla Grudova’s weird (in the truest sense of the word) THE DOLL’S ALPHABET; the brutal horror of Bernard Taylor’s THE GODSEND; the masterful terrors of Reggie Oliver’s HOLIDAYS FROM HELL; Grady Hendrix’s nostalgic PAPERBACKS FROM HELL.
And that’s just some of what I encountered. There were individual stories mixed in occassionally, and a few books I started but for various reasons did not complete, or completed but cannot talk about at present but will in the near future.
Some of the books I read I’ve spoken about here already at greater length, but not all, which should not be taken as any kind of signal about relative worth. Sometimes, one reads a great book but has little to say about it that feels at all interesting or original. In those cases, I leave it to others to extole those books’ respective virtues.
In a few days, it will be 2018, and I’ll start again reading as many books as I can find time for and talking about those that impressed or affected me. I hope there are some readers who glean something of interest from my small insights, and are thus inspired to read some of the books I’ve mentioned. That’s what books are for, after all: to be read. And despite what some might have you believe, there’s an audience for all of them, sometimes comprised of the most surprising readers. I’m hopeful you find and fall in love with a book that will surprise others. It’s within these unexpected cracks and nooks that our true selves are ultimately and utterly laid bare.
My story, “On Ice”, originally published in my collection, BURNT BLACK SUNS, has recently been reprinted in the premiere issue of the new science fiction magazine, BLACK INFINITY (2017).
I’ve always had a funny relationship with science fiction. Some of my favourite films fall into the genre, and yet when it comes to the written word I’ve never found myself attracted to it. There are exceptions, of course—there are always exceptions—but to a very large and significant degree I’m not interested in science fiction.
There are likely many reasons for this, but perhaps the greatest might be connected to the notion that the difference between science fiction and horror is the former is a genre of hope. It’s about looking forward to where humanity can go, what it can reach. I prefer my speculative fiction to look elsewhere, to focus on where humanity has gone wrong, and how we might suffer for it.
Nevertheless, like all genres and modes, the lines between science fiction and horror (and fantasy) have never been distinct, and as time progresses and new works are created, those lines have become even blurrier still. This I imagine is how some of the stories in BURNT BLACK SUNS could be considered as having crossed the boundary into science fiction, if only temporarily, and of the nine stories in that book, “On Ice” is likely one of the best examples of that occurrence. Or, at the very least, a good example of how I believe science can provide a stabilizing backdrop for a tale that’s about to drift off into the fantastic. Rooting horror in reality is key to making a story resonate. Without that reality, the horrific is prone to losing its efficacy.
My story, “The Flower Unfolds”, was published last month in the pages of NIGHTSCRIPT 3 (2017), the annual anthology series edited by C.M. Muller. I first wrote the story a few years ago for a different anthology that was always just a hair’s breadth away from being published, but never was. Eventually, I took the rights to the story back and understood, almost immediately, once I had them that the best place for the piece would be within Muller’s journal.
I believe I first encountered C.M. Muller’s work in the pages of SHADOWS & TALL TREES, where his story “Vrang” caught my attention for its subtlety and atmosphere. It stood out among many great pieces in that journal, and it was clear Mr. Muller was approaching his fiction on a wavelength that I was predisposed to receive. After this exposure, I discovered his blog, where he was reviewing books and interviewing authors, and in reading his criticism I came to understand that his connection to this sort of strange fiction wasn’t accidental or blindly intuitive, but came from a deeper knowledge and appreciation of what makes the “strange story” tick. So when he announced that he had decided to start editing and publishing his own journal dedicated to this sort of short fiction, I was confident the field would be in excellent hands.
Still, I didn’t expect something so good, so polished, right off the bat. NIGHTSCRIPT is one of those rare journals that posits an argument for the strange story being the most exciting branch of the weird. Every story between its pages speaks to a central unstated philosophy of fiction and how it can operate on a subliminal level for various readers. These aren’t mere horror stories, or what many contemporary readers think of as weird fiction, but instead occupy a transient space where they achieve dissociative resonance in their exploration of the unknown. In short, Mr. Muller has been able to forge a journal in a mere two volumes (with a third on its way) that provides a definitive marker for the rise of sublime horror.
For these reasons, and more, I’m pleased to have my story published within its pages. The story itself was an attempt to return to the Strange stories I’d written more of earlier in my career, before I found myself side-tracked by the growing Weird movement. It takes as its inspiration stories my mother told me of her days working in the city, combined with my own experiences doing the same (albeit in a different sort of job). With this, a little bit of Robert Aickman is woven through, and the end result I think is a story that touches on a lot of the anxieties we feel as we find ourselves more and more distanced from nature and from ourselves.
This is not a review. It’s a disorienting experience to read something as strange as Camilla Grudova’s THE DOLL’S ALPHABET (Coffee House Press, 2017). The stories themselves read, at times, as though they are translations from some other language, from some other country that is unstuck in time. Folkloric, fable-like, mixing bizarre imagery in unexpected ways, these tales are also at times grotesque and repellant. On top of this, they all seem to share a single world—not where character or locations are concerned (at least, as far as I could tell) but instead in terms of items and environments. Reoccurring devices, scents, foods. Many characters’ lives are more than a few steps below poverty, vermin of all sorts reappear time and time again. There is a vein of body horror through her work, as well, though not in the manner one might expect, and even still it’s all filtered through a narrative style that intentionally unsettles. I’m at a loss how to adequately describe this book in a way that gets across how unique it is. Which is perhaps the greatest thing one can hope for from a book by an author one is unfamiliar with. For those of us who prefer our dark short fiction collections to be pieces of art that achieve something more, something greater overall than its single stories might initially indicate, I can’t imagine a better book to recommend.
This is not a review. Dale Bailey’s collection, THE END OF THE END OF EVERYTHING (Arche Press, 2015), tells a series of short science fiction stories where the science fiction is besides the point. It’s there, in the background, providing a canvas for Bailey’s work, and though, yes, these fantastical elements are part of the story and cannot be divorced, they are hardly the point of the work. Instead, like canvas, they provide a substrate upon which Bailey paints his tales of the complexity of interpersonal relationships, of how people interact in groups versus intimately, and just how disruptive it can be when the barriers between those two weaken and blur. You don’t read stories like these for the surprise and inventiveness of their speculative aspects—although to be clear, the speculative in these tales is always surprising and inventive—but instead you read them in order to try and piece together just how it is people can ever understand something as utterly unknowable as other people.